Race, Class and Traffic Deaths

A surge in vehicle crashes is disproportionately harming lower-income families and Black Americans.

Aug. 23, 2022

Vehicle crashes seem as if they might be an equal-opportunity public health problem. Americans in every demographic group drive, after all. If anything, poor families tend to rely more on public transportation and less on car travel.

Yet vehicle deaths turn out to be highly unequal. Lower-income people are much more likely to die in crashes, academic research shows. The racial gaps are also huge — even bigger on a percentage basis than the racial gaps on cancer, according to the C.D.C.

The unequal toll from crashes is particularly notable now because the U.S. is experiencing an alarming increase in vehicle deaths. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, recently called it “a national crisis of fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways.” And the toll is falling most heavily on lower-income Americans and Black Americans.

The reasons for the increase remain somewhat mysterious, experts say. But the consequences are clear. More than 115 Americans have been dying on the roads on average every day this year.

Today’s newsletter will explore the likely explanations for the increase, as well as its unequal impact and the potential solutions.

Not so long ago, the trend in car crashes was a good-news story. The death rate began to fall in the early 1970s, thanks in large part to the consumer movement started by Ralph Nader. Cars became safer. States passed seatbelt laws. Drunken driving became less common. The declines continued into the early 2010s, as airbags became standard and vehicles began to include technology to prevent crashes.

But the situation changed around 2015, with the death rate mostly rising over the next several years. One reason seems to be distracted driving. By 2015, two-thirds of U.S. adults owned a smartphone, up from almost none in 2006.

The U.S. has also been less aggressive about cracking down on speeding than Britain and some other parts of Europe, and vehicles here tend to be larger. “The engorgement of the American vehicle,” as Gregory Shill of the University of Iowa has called it, can kill pedestrians and people in smaller vehicles. These patterns help explain why death rates have fallen substantially more in other countries than in the U.S. during recent decades.

As alarming as these trends were, the biggest increases have taken place more recently — since the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, as Covid was transforming daily life, vehicle crashes surged. By the start of this year, the death rate had jumped about 20 percent from prepandemic levels. It has been the sharpest increase since the 1940s.

How did Covid lead to more crashes?

At first, researchers thought that emptier roads might be the main answer. Open roads can encourage speeding, and speeding can be fatal. But even as traffic returned to near-normal levels last year, traffic deaths remained high. That combination weakens the empty-road theory, as Robert Schneider, an urban-planning expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said.

The most plausible remaining theories tend to involve the mental health problems caused by Covid’s isolation and disruption. Alcohol and drug abuse have increased. Impulsive behavior, like running red lights and failing to wear seatbelts, also seems to have risen (as my colleague Simon Romero has reported). Many Americans have felt frustrated or unhappy, and it seems to have affected their driving.

“They’re a little bit less regulated — they might not be considering consequences,” Kira Mauseth, a clinical psychologist at Seattle University, has said. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, put it this way to The Los Angeles Times: “You’ve been cooped up, locked down and have restrictions you chafe at.”

Ken Kolosh, who oversees data analysis at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, told me that researchers would need years to tease out all the causes. Confusingly, vehicle deaths did not surge in most other countries during the pandemic, suggesting that stress was a particularly American problem. “The world really felt upside down,” Kolosh said.

One encouraging data point that’s consistent with this theory: The most recent data shows that vehicle deaths declined modestly this spring, as Covid restrictions continued to recede.

An unequal pandemic …

Still, the surge in crashes has become one more way that the pandemic has hurt lower-income Americans and people of color the most — as did the early wave of Covid deaths and the consequences of closed schools.

As I mentioned above, vehicle fatalities have long been unequal. Poorer people are more likely to drive older cars, which can lack safety features. Low-income neighborhoods are also much more likely to have high-speed roads running through them. “We have systematically put these arterial roadways in areas where people had less political power to fight back,” Rebecca Sanders, the founder of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, said.

The pandemic probably exacerbated the gaps because many professionals have begun working from home, while many blue-collar Americans kept driving, biking or walking to work. Some lower-income workers also drive as part of their jobs.

Even if the full explanation of the surge in crashes is murky, many experts believe that the most promising solutions remain clear.

“Making streets safer doesn’t require designing new solutions in laboratories,” John Rennie Short, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has written. Jeffrey Michael, another expert, told The Washington Post, “This is an issue for which answers are known.”

Those answers include: stricter enforcement of speed limits, seatbelt mandates and drunken-driving laws; better designed roads, especially in poorer neighborhoods; more public transit; and further spread of safety features like automated braking.

Continuing to leave behind the disruptions of Covid — and the loneliness and stress they have caused — seems likely to help, too.